|Molly Blume is aged 29 when we first meet her. It is she who tells the story throughout. She has brown eyes, is 5ft 4 ins tall, has long and curly high-lighted blond hair, and lives in Los Angeles on Pico Boulevard "in the heart of the west side Jewish community". She is a shrewd freelance reporter (she keeps insisting she is really a journalist, not a detective) who also writes books about true crime. She had always been inquisitive so, after taking extension courses in journalism, she had managed to develop her curiosity into a career.
Her grand parents had emigrated to Los Angeles from Europe in 1951 and she herself is one of seven children. She is very much a practising Modern Orthodox Jew ("I am careful not to wave a red flag in Satan's face. I don't want him to see me"), even if she does wear "sleeves and skirts falling short of strict Orthodox rules, necklines a little too low". She is also, she says, "an excellent worrier". She had divorced two years before the first book opens.
Rochelle (Majer) Krich (1947 - ) is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and was born in Bayreuth in Germany. She lived in New Jersey and in New York before moving with her family to Los Angeles in 1960. With a master's degree in English from U.C.L.A. (where she met her husband), she taught high school English for eighteen years, chairing the English department at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools. She is an Orthodox Jew with six children and admits to being "the stereotypical Jewish mother."
She had always dreamed of becoming a published writer then in 1990 produced her first novel Where ís Mommy Now?, which was filmed as Perfect Alibi. Since then she has published some thirteen other novels, all, she says, critically acclaimed, as well as several short stories. The novels include the five Jessie Drake mysteries. It was In 2002 that she published Blues in the Night (reviewed below), the first of a series featuring Molly Blume.
Blues in the Night (2002)
Blues in the Night starts with Molly Bloom's copy for next week's edition of her Crime Sheet column in a Los Angeles tabloid:
Sunday, July 13. 1:46 A.M. Near Lookout Mountain and Laurel Canyon. An unidentified woman in her twenties, wearing a nightgown, was the victim of a hit-and-run accident that left her unconscious and seriously injured. There were no witnesses.
This image of a young woman in her nightgown stumbling along a dark, winding road is one that Molly cannot forget. In fact, it draws her to the victim's bedside in intensive care, where the victim whispers to her three names: Robbie, Max, and Nina. It is enough to reinforce Molly's gut instinct that there are sinister circumstances behind the assault. It starts her asking questions that nobody, even her Los Angeles Police Department friend, Detective Andy Connors, really wants to answer. Her investigations take her far from her own secure and loving Orthodox Jewish background. And she also has to sort out the question of her relationship with attractive Rabbi Zachary (Zack) Abrams who had once French-kissed her in high school and had now returned to the district. She had firmly told her mother, "I don't date rabbis," but ....
It is all written in a lively, chatty style (including sentences like "You get the picture") but the real strength of the book lies not in the main plot, which is mostly an investigation into the past and is not all that attention- grabbing or exciting (even the finale, involving her attempted murder, is strangely uninvolving), but with the absolute conviction with which the Jewish background is lovingly drawn. There is frequent use of Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases that are either conveniently explained in the text or can (mostly) be found in the useful glossary at the end of the book. There are even some traditional Jewish jokes, such as Molly's mom's favorite one about a shadchan (matchmaker) "who raves to a young man's parents about a girl who has everything: beauty, intelligence, a sterling character, wealth.
What doesn't she have? ask the sceptical parents. A long pause before the shadchan replies: Teeth."
And, the author assures us, "It's even better in Yiddish."
There are useful tips too from the Talmud (a word, by the way, not included in the glossary): modeh b'miktzat, model b'kol, meaning that "If someone admits he lied about part of the charge, chances are he lied about the charge in its entirety."
Molly herself scrupulously observes the traditions, although during the Three Weeks (which she admits she dreads), "We refrain from luxuries, like listening to live music, buying or wearing new clothes, cutting our hair, celebrating marriages, bar and bat mitzvahs, or other happy events. Within the three weeks are the Nine Days of Av, and they are even more somber and stringent. We don't swim or do laundry and, except on Shabbat, we don't eat meat or drink wine." And all this is to remember the loss of the Holy Temple when the Romans captured Jerusalem. And she always has to race around to be ready for Shabbat, a day when "We don't cook. So we boil water beforehand for tea or instant coffee. My family uses an electric hotpot, plugged in until Shabbat is over. You can also use a kettle and leave it on a blech, a heavy sheet of metal, placed over a stovetop and a burner set to a medium flame."
It's a convincing picture of a religious lifestyle with which the author is obviously very much at home and which she describes with loving respect. It is because of this that I have included Molly amongst my list of clerical detectives, although she also seems destined to qualify under the heading of rabbi's wife.
Dream House (2003)
Dream House gets off to a good start with Molly Blume investigating a recent spate of increasingly violent vandalisms targeting residents who have paid millions of dollars for their dream homes in the richest enclaves of Los Angeles. She soon gets involved with members of HARP, the Historical Architectural Restoration and Preservation board whose "members decide what you can (or more often cannot) do to your property's exterior", sometimes much to the homeowner's disgust. And it is not long before she discovers that six HARP chairpersons' homes have been vandalized.
Amongst the interesting characters that emerge is confused old Professor Linney, whose dead body is discovered in an empty house which belonged to Margaret Reston, who had gone missing, and her husband, Hank. She was last seen working in her garden five months before and although traces of her blood were found in her car, the police have no idea what has happened to her. This provides a more satisfying plot than that of the previous book, and there is added interest in Molly's continuing relationship with Zack, her old school sweetheart who had dumped her and is now a rabbi. But it is a relationship that in some ways cannot get very far as "Orthodoxy prohibits any physical contact between men and women outside of marriage" and "the prohibition against extramarital sex is one rule I'm not about to break." They are not even allowed to kiss. But they are allowed to get engaged.
As before, the Orthodox Jewish background is certainly of interest (although there is less of it than in the previous book) and there are some quite moving descriptions of characters like Molly's increasingly blind but indominatible old grandmother, Bubbie G, who had "been stoic about not being able to drive her car any more, but I know she misses reading and doing the needlepoint that used to keep her company most evenings, and my heart aches for her when she can't make out the faces of her family and friends."
Unfortunately, though, as the book progresses, Molly's interviews and speculations seem to get longer and longer, and it's the incidentals such as Molly's first lunch with Zack's parents that often prove the most interesting parts. Even the climax is not as exciting or involving as it might have been, and it too is followed by even more lengthy explanations. Then, after it's all over, the author even gives us one of grandmother's recipes!
Repeatedly in the books, Molly looks back to the murder of her best friend, Aggie, five years before and keeps wondering how this came about. Presumably this is intended as a sort of teaser to Molly's eventual discovery of the truth, but beyond periodically nagging the police about it, there seems nothing more she can do. Not in this book anyway.
Grave Endings (2004)
Grave Endings describes how for almost six years crime writer Molly Blume (who is almost 30 now) has been obsessed by the mystery of Aggie's (her best friend's) murder. When Molly's LAPD pal Detective Andy Connors shows her a locket found on the body of a dead man, suddenly the case seems solved. Molly had given that locket to Aggie. Still coiled inside it is the red-thread good-luck charm that Molly had brought back years ago from Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, a thread with mystical powers reputed to protect its wearer.
The presumed murderer - a good-looking aspiring actor named Randy Creeley - was found dead from an overdose in his shabby Hollywood apartment. But Molly is plagued by unanswered questions, and though she should be focused on her wedding, only weeks away, she is driven to find out more - about Creeley; about his nervous sister, Trina; about his missing girlfriend, Doreen; about Aggie, who, it turns out, didn't tell her best friend everything. The more Molly discovers, the more she wonders: was Aggie's life snuffed out so an addict could shoot up? Or has Creeley been framed? What if Aggie was deliberately murdered by someone else, someone who is ready to kill again to ensure that his motives stay buried with Aggie and Randy Creeley?
Although the story gets off to quite an interesting start, there is little sense of excitement (except for one dramatic incident when another vehicle deliberately almost crashes into Molly's car and forces it off the freeway) , and it is all too slow-moving to hold the interest throughout. The self-contained and self-sufficient (even on occasions possibly a little self-satisfied?) Jewish Orthodox background is still convincingly brought to life, and it and Molly's impending wedding are what give the book its appeal, even if her fiance, Rabbi Zack, remains an idealized figure, described as "a hunk. Six feet tall, black hair, a smile that makes my knees, weak, gray-blue eyes that see into my soul. I had a fluttery feeling watching him ...." He seems to come straight from a romantic novel.
The detective work, although determined, is rather tedious by comparison. It is difficult for an outsider to feel very involved. More interesting are the asides, as when we are told how Molly invites dead relations' and friends' souls to her wedding. We are not told whether they ever turned up. But, with the mystery solved, Molly still "wished Aggie were here .... I think now that God watched Aggie as she walked from her car on that July night (when she was murdered). I think He turned his head away, because He couldn't bear to see what He knew would happen. I think He cried." A pity this suggestion wasn't included in the list of questions for discussion that the author hopefully supplies at the end of the book.
Now You See Me ... (2005)
Now You See Me ... describes how 8-month-married Molly (now Molly Blume Abrams) gets involved in trying to find 18 year old Hadassah, who has run away from home to be with a man she met on the Internet. Molly sets out on a long trail to discover whether the girl was a random victor of a predator, or a pawn in a scheme of revenge against her family - and it is not long before Hadassah herself gets accused of a murder.
This has a much more interesting and coherent plot than the previous book, and makes quite an enjoyable read - and two episodes (the girl's kidnapping and the attempt to rescue her) are both quite exciting, even if she manages to disappear and be searched for on two separate occasions. Generally, though, the pace is still a leisurely one and it is hard to share the publisher's optimism in describing it on the cover as a "novel of suspense". The author's strength still lies in her descriptions of the people and their relationships in the Orthodox Jewish community (as when she describes an Orthodox Jewish chat room on the internet or we are told how Rabbi Zack unscrews the refrigerator light bulb as on "on the Sabbath we don't cook, or turn electricity or fire on or off") rather than in her handling of dramatic action scenes. Interesting too is the way that Molly struggles to overcome her revulsion for the rabbi she blames for allowing her school to suspend her for something she didn't do 15 years before. It is somehow reassuring to be reminded that there are baddies (including murderers), as well as goodies, in the Orthodox community. Incidentally, even the investigating detective finally turns out to be Jewish.
The author is at her best when describing the events and feelings nearest her own experience, as when she tells us that an author's book tour "can have lonesome moments. Not during the reading, when you're caught up in the thrill of sharing your words with people who know your name even if you don't know theirs. And not immediately afterward, when you may cherish the solitude and anonymity. But at some point - when the euphoria has evaporated, when the people who came to hear you are in their homes, chatting with family or friends about the day's happenings, and you're in your hotel or in a restaurant and everyone around you seems to be part of a couple or a group, sharing drinks or laughter - at some point you're filled with melancholy, with a sense of being disconnected, invisible." This sounds so much more real than some of the more meldramatic parts of the plot.
In theory Molly is the narrator throughout but it isn't explained how she is able to give a detailed description of events she wasn't at. However, in question six at the end of the book, the author explains that "Aside from the opening chapter, I intended to tell the story entirely from Molly's point of view. But Hadassah insisted on having her own voice." The question the author then goes on to ask is "How did her voice affect the story?" Are there really readers' groups that need to be asked questions like this? Isn't the author taking her work just a little bit too seriously?
The author has her own website and there is an interesting interview with her on the Crescent Blues site, although this predates the Molly Bloom books.
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